Chilean president Michelle Bachelet came to power in March 2006 as a surprising new political force in Latin America – a single, agnostic mother in a nation where macho Catholic men had long ruled. Although she will step down after December’s election (under Chilean law she cannot stand for two consecutive terms), she is one of the most popular politicians in Latin America (her approval rate was nearly 75 per cent in June).
Bachelet spoke to MONOCLE about Chile’s role in the world and her time as president. The interview ranged from fluent English, to German to Spanish, testament to Bachelet’s years as an exile first in Australia, then in what was East Germany, where she studied medicine and was first married. After returning to Chile in the late 1970s, Bachelet worked as a pediatrician, monitoring the effects of the Pinochet dictatorship on children, many of whose parents had disappeared or were tortured. These years marked Bachelet for life – her father died in prison and she was tortured alongside her mother – experiences that she says now make her a devout disciple of participatory democracy.
Monocle: How do you think Chile is viewed?
Michelle Bachelet: There has been this image of Chile as the best student in the classroom but the worst classmate. There was this idea that we preferred the European leagues over the Latin American leagues but that is not fair. There has been tremendous work with neighbouring countries in Latin America. Yes, we did produce opportunities for Chile by building close relationships with the US and Europe, but we also built relationships with Latin America. We have commercial trade agreements with all the Americas. Chile is a medium-sized country, developed, but not a threat to anyone. Not an economic power or a military power, but we have conditions that allow us to build bridges, agreements and consensus that not all nations have. I believe in the integration of South America.
M: Many people see the Bush years as a lost decade in the sense that north-south relations were not advanced. What changes do you see with Obama now in power?
MB: The presence of President Obama in Trinidad and Tobago [at the Summit of the Americas] was historic. Not just his physical presence but his meetings in private. And you see this with Obama in various parts of the world – in areas where there have historically been problems in the relationship with the US. Now we see America treating us as partners, as equals and with respect. We have been waiting for this. It is only going to get better. Obviously, this has to be translated into cooperation, joint agreements, energy agreements and climate change treaties. I am a complete optimist. I have the highest [regard for] President Obama. The first meetings have been positive. I am sure this is a very important change in the relationships between north and south.
M: South America recently created UNASUR, a kind of United Nations for South America. You were elected the first president of UNASUR and worked closely with Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Does it feel like South America and Brazil in particular are coming more onto the world stage?
MB: I think it is fantastic that we have this Latin America where we have a president who was a labourer, a Labour leader [Lula], an indigenous president [Evo Morales of Bolivia], two women presidents [Bachelet and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina], an ex-Bishop [Fernando Lugo of Paraguay] and an ex-military man who has been elected [Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez]. It is a region that’s highlighting its diversity. Lula, in particular, has emerged as a grand leader. The world has changed, today we have emerging countries such as India and Brazil that need to have better representation in the international arena. That is why we have always supported Brazil’s bid for a seat at the UN Security Council. Now these institutions have to be reformed to include the reality of today’s world. If you look at BRIC, these are the countries that are supporting the world during this economic crisis.
M: How has Chile managed to be so successful in managing its economy?
MB: Three years ago I said that the extra resources from copper would not be wasted. When we announced a fund to save the extra copper resources and plan on future development and not the current moment, this was not always understood. But we can now congratulate ourselves on being prudent. Instead of a financial crisis where fiscal spending is cut, interest rates are raised and social benefits eliminated, we now have more options. In the last six months, I have introduced a series of economic benefits, including housing subsidies for the middle class and a fiscal stimulus plan for $4bn [€2.8bn]. This includes $700m [€490m] in new infrastructure projects and means thousands of new jobs.
M: Your government has been criticised for being suspicious of outsiders. Looking at your history, during the dictatorship you were betrayed by close friends – friends who broke under torture and named names, leading to close friends of yours being captured and killed. How do you fight to keep these kinds of incidents from marking you for life?
MB: That [betrayal] is true. But also there were people by my side in fundamental moments who showed their valour and greatness. People say I am distrustful. I am not distrustful. I am a realist. I am a pediatrician but I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I have a tremendous capacity to understand the profiles of people and their character. And the truth is I am rarely wrong in my perception of who I can trust. When I came to power a lot of people had misgivings about me. But I am a nerd. I study themes, not just in the political angles, but in depth. I want to understand. Chileans who at first interpreted my style through the typical masculine forms of leadership, now understand that not only do I have a different [feminine] leadership style, but they value this approach.
M: Is it important to have female leaders or is it more about the principle; that women are given the opportunity to lead?
MB: You need to have both. Opportunities for women to be taking important decisions, to be managing the decision-making process but also to have women leaders. I did not just consider myself a woman president, but I made a government that respected the idea of parity. It is like someone who said – can you take your football team to win the World Cup with only half the squad? Of course not. So why should a country lose half its potential? In my country we are working with that concept of half women, half men and not just at the ministerial level but across the government. In Chile women were invisible. Today, there has been an important cultural change. I just had a man come up to me today and say, “My daughter is eight years old and she wants to be president too.” This is why it is so important.
M: Now you are at the end of your fourth year, what awaits you? MB: The only thing I am sure about is that I am going to be in public service and I hope to write a book about being the first woman president of Chile. I’d make a decision and the press would say that a certain man swayed my opinion. That’s not how it happened! It is important to show the difference between what was said about my government and what really happened. This was an unprecedented journey and I want to inspire a new generation of women.
Michelle Bachelet’s CV
1951: Born in Santiago, Chile.
1974: Her father, General Alberto Bachelet, is accused of working with former president Salvador Allende and dies in prison after being tortured.
1975: Bachelet is kidnapped and tortured alongside her mother, Ángela Jeria, at Villa Grimaldi detention facility.
1975: Bachelet is exiled to Australia then East Germany where she marries and studies medicine.
1997: Wins a scholarship to the US Inter-American Defense College in Washington DC.
2002: Named minister of defence.
2006: Defeats Sebastián Piñera to become Chile’s first female president.
Chile’s best points
01 The police – Try and bribe a Chilean cop and you go to jail. Carabineros de Chile will even change a driver’s tyre.
02 Wine – New labels including Tabalí are putting Chilean white wines on the map. 03 Tidiness – On early week-day mornings squads of men on step ladders can be seen cleaning the traffic lights.
04 The subway – Clean, reliable and growing rapidly with usage up 50 per cent in the last two years.
05 Taxes – The Chilean tax collection SII is a role model for the world – Chileans pay online and refunds are online too.
Chile’s worst points
01 Education – One legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship was a full scale evisceration of a good, free public education. Money spent by the current government is having little effect.
02 Reading – A skinny paperback is not only so badly made that pages blow out in the wind, but often costs $10 to $15.
03 Coffee – Chileans still insist on serving Nescafé to visitors as if it were an original and tasty treat.
04 Anti-marijuana messages – Chileans love to smoke pot. Surveys show that Chile has among the highest rate of dope smokers in the hemisphere.
05 Sports – About the only competition Chile is world class in, is child obesity. Few children play sports, car use is endemic and fast food abundant.
At 36, congressman Marco Enríquez-Ominami is Chile’s first presidential candidate under the age of 40 since the country’s return to democracy following the end of the dictatorship in 1990. A filmmaker and the son of a murdered revolutionary leader, Enríquez-Ominami has got his rivals worried ahead of Chile’s presidential elections in December.
Having resigned from the Socialist Party to run on an independent ticket, Enríquez-Ominami, a self-proclaimed “non-conformist libertarian”, has been gaining popularity, climbing the opinion polls with around 20 per cent of the intended vote.
Why are you running?
I believe it’s possible to make Chile a more inclusive society through profound political reform and education.
If elected, how would you change Chile? My two main objectives are to provide more job opportunities and to make those privileges available to the rich accessible to everyone. This includes high-quality education and tax incentives for small and medium-sized businesses.
And international relations? Chile can play a more important role in regional and economic integration in Latin America. What is good for the US is not necessarily good for the rest of Latin America.
Why is education so key? I lived in exile in Paris until I was 13 years old, where I had an excellent and free education. Parents should have the right to choose a good school for their children. Education in Chile needs to become less elitist.
Bachelet is admired for saving the country’s revenues to use during tough times. Do you respect her record?
I agree that anti-cyclical policies are important and Bachelet’s government was correct to apply them. But there should have been more creativity about how the country’s revenues were spent, particularly in increasing health and education coverage.